Sidewinder’s View: “The Emerald Forest” (1985)

In 1985, my second favorite movie of the year was The Emerald Forest, a jungle-set Action-Adventure with a Serious Message of anti-industrialization. Story was about an American engineer searching for his long-lost son abducted as a child by an Amazonian tribe– The Invisible People– the likes of which the outside world’s never seen.

That’s how the story starts off, with a little bit of preachiness here and there, but then once the missing son part of the plot gets resolved about halfway through, the movie turns into this Big Message picture about how the indigenous tribes in the Amazon being displaced by the construction/existence of a massive hydroelectric dam.

The movie ends with the missing kid’s father, who’s also the construction project’s head engineer, Powers Boothe, rigging the dam with explosives to destroy it and save the Invisible People’s jungle habitat.

The sabotage fails, but nature picks up the slack when a severe rainstorm– shown supposedly brought about by the Invisible People out in the jungle doing some kind of a Rain Chant– so we get a heavy downpour, which results in a flash flood knocking down the dam, anyway.

So, hey, y’know, we got our happy ending. Or so it seemed, until I put further thought into it.

Even if the company Boothe works for never discovers evidence of his sabotage effort, I’d think his career as an engineer is pretty much over, his reputation ruined, once that dam collapses. There’s always got to be a fall guy in the aftermath of a multi-million dollar loss. Who else is there but Boothe to take the blame for that dam’s design not having withstood the elements?

Oh, well. At least the Invisible People had a happy ending, left to live on in peace in their idyllic jungle habitat. It’s only a happy ending provided you don’t think about it past the end credits. Taken to its logical conclusion, based on what we’ve been shown in the movie, that ending, it’s not quite so happy.

Two things:

What stops another dam from being built to replace the one that fell?

Boothe’s character, who’s probably something of a pariah now in the engineering field, at least with this particular company, is not even going to be involved with the new construction. And, if he is, what’s he going to do? Blow it up again? Then what? He goes to jail, somebody, if not the same company, is going to rebuild the dam, given that it’s obviously a prime location for a hydroelectric dam.

(Eli Roth’s recent flick, The Green Inferno, actually used this angle as a plot point, just one of the reasons I really enjoyed that picture.)

Plus, the more intriguing question, I wondered, what about the tribe’s rivals, The Fierce People? That nasty tribe of cannibals armed with M-16s by slave traders to slay the Invisible People and abduct their women to be herded into brothels?

During their rescue of the abducted women, did Powers Boothe and the surviving Invisible men kill off all the Fierce men? Every single one? Even the tribe’s teenage boys? No.

Fact is, the Fierce People have been introduced to civilization and superior firepower. Any surviving Fierce men, or boys who reach adulthood a short time later, could just as easily seek out another gun-running slave trader and strike a deal similar to the previous arrangement in order to avenge their tribe.

And why wouldn’t they? They’re Fierce. They hate the Invisible People. They love to fight. They’re cannibals.

Those kindly Invisible People, they’re living on borrowed time. They are doomed. At the very least, their way of life.

Did I pick up on movie’s message of anti-industrialization and bleeding-heart environmentalism? Sure. Hard to miss, given the movie’s heavy-handed approach.

While I didn’t necessarily disagree with the movie’s ‘leave those natives alone’ sentiment, I did find Boothe’s decision to blow the dam up a little disturbing; here we have the story’s hero committing a criminal act of sabotage, possibly mass murder. Not so heroic when you step back and think about it. Even as a naive, idiot teenager, I realized, “Man, he’s going to be in deep shit for doing that”.

There’s going to be a massive wall of water released from behind that dam when Boothe blows it up. Did his character ever consider how many homes or unsuspecting people in its path might get destroyed? It wouldn’t appear to, not that we’re ever shown that.

The fact that Boothe’s sabotage didn’t actually bring the dam down, but the severe rainstorm did, didn’t make the event, or his radical choice to blow it up, any more palatable.

Though I did get wrapped up in the plot and liked the characters, and enjoyed the movie enough to see it twice during its opening week, I didn’t come away from it with a hatred of hydroelectric dams. Or electricity. Though that’s really what it was against, they didn’t focus so much on the dam or generating power.

What’d they focus on? Destruction of the rainforest, we’re shown big bulldozers knocking down acres upon acres of jungle to make way for the dam.

So we got that visual, plus the visual of the Invisible People watching all this happen from just inside the bulldozed treeline, with the knowledge their world is getting smaller and smaller, with the outside world making progress at the expense of the indigenous peoples, blah blah blah. Pretty obvious we’re meant to sympathize with one side over the other here.

As much as certain aspects of the Inivisible People’s way of life depicted in the film appealed to my daydreaming teenaged brain, it didn’t make me want to live that way.

It also didn’t make me want to try cocaine.

My dad, who I saw the movie with the second time its opening week, felt the movie’s depiction of the Invisible People– along with Powers Boothe– finding their ‘spirit animals’, via hallucinogenic green powder forcefully blown up their noses in ritualistic fashion, was intended to glorify cocaine. Or that it did, anyway, no matter what the intention was.

Maybe he’s right. but, honestly, the way they depicted the ritual in the movie, it looked pretty painful and did not look like something I wanted to try, and until my dad brought it up, the pro-cocaine angle never even occurred to me.

An audience sees and hears what it chooses. I saw a kick-ass jungle adventure. My dad saw the same movie, thought it was about drugs.

So why did I see The Emerald Forest twice on opening weekend, later rent the VHS 2 or 3 times, then later on buy the movie on Laserdisc– and watch the hell out of it– and then DVD– which I watched not quite so many times? What was it about the movie I liked?

I found its character conflicts and the action-suspense sequences very compelling, very entertaining. Plus, the world the movie was set in. Back then, especially, any Action/Suspense movie that took place in a woodlands, a swamp or a jungle setting, I was all in for that (First Blood, The Naked Prey, Southern Comfort, Bridge On The River Kwai, Deliverance, Red Dawn, Predator, Apocalypse Now).

All the same, I found its rather romanticized depiction of The Invisible People and the movie’s anti-industrialization message (anti-progress) actually kind of routine and not that interesting. That part of the movie just did not register with me in a significant way.

The movie’s happy ending aside, it seemed to me, even back then, that there was a lot more left of that story than where the filmmaker chose to end his telling of it.

I don’t think so highly of the movie now. Parts of it, yes. The locations, the cinematography, the action and suspense, but, overall, I feel like I’ve outgrown it.